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Critical Failures 2: Fail Harder by Robert Bevan

When I read Critical Failures Book One by Robert Bevan a few weeks ago, I laughed from start to finish. Of course, I didn’t really have a clue about the world of role-play games but, to be honest, it didn’t really matter. When you read any book, you are transported to a world that is often unfamiliar and as long as you can enjoy the plot and you find some kind of likeability factor with the characters, as I did with Critical Failures Book One, you are happy to figure it out along the way.

Critical Failures: Fail Harder starts where the other book left off.  Toilet humour is ever-present and the grossest character, Cooper the half-orc, is strangely the most endearing. Tim, Dave, Julian and Cooper have found an inn to get drunk in, an ideal location for these men-children to commence phase two of their adventures. Of course, they are joined by Chaz and Katherine, Tim’s sister, who found themselves unceremoniously transported to this fantasy game land.  I like Katherine a lot. She’s strong, feisty and puts the boys in their place. It is her determination to be independent that sets the wheels in motion for the plot, as the boys attempt to rescue her from a supposedly undesirable character. As she is the only female character who gets any proper action, it’s no wonder I’m drawn to her. It would be nice to see Katherine with a female buddy amongst this male-dominated group. Two feisty women are so much better than one!

There are lots of new characters to enjoy in this book. The boys are directed to an inn in a rough part of town called “The Whore’s Head” where a collection of other players who have been banished by Mordred, the Cavern Master, reside. As our group of friends start to understand what they need to do to stay alive and try to find a way home, they make a number of new acquaintances who add another layer of comedy and mirth to the proceedings. I loved the idea of the Four Horsemen being feared by all the residents of The Whore’s Head because they are teenage players who have found themselves in a place where they can wreak havoc without retribution and have easy access to alcohol. Now they have all transferred to their role play characters, it is only their reckless manner and inability to think things through that gives their ages away.

The boys experience a number of hairy scenarios which could easily be the end of them and it seems that they manage to get by in spite of themselves. Again, this adds to the comedy and Bevan generates a number of cliffhanger moments where the characters survive by pure luck. They are their own worst enemies! Yet as a reader, you want them to continue on. At the very least, you want them to be able to return home, but not before they have had a few more adventures.

After reading these two books, and Bevan’s blog (also hilarious, by the way), it seems that he has a great talent for satire. He is able to add an intelligence to the activities of a mainly moronic bunch of characters. The combination of vulgarity, idiocy, yet an uncanny ability to find their way out of life-threatening scenarios, whether by luck or an actual plan, works like a charm to entertain the reader. The names that he gives to things in the fantasy realm add to the already amusing narrative.

Bevan has generated a fantastical world which is intermingled with things that readers can easily recognise, which is perfect for those like me who are new to the concept of Dungeons and Dragons-style role-play. Trials and tribulations are mixed up with inept characters who are insanely funny and although, of course, the plot is key to the flow of the narrative, for me, it is the dynamics between the characters that makes these books so enjoyable and as an advocate of the importance of good characterisation, I applaud Bevan on his ability to generate flawed, yet endearing and hilariously funny characters whose relationships with each other provide continuous amusement with every line of dialogue. I thoroughly enjoyed book two and thanks to the cliffhanger at the end, I can’t wait to read the next one.

      

 

A Spark of Magic by J.L.Clayton (Chosen Saga – Book One)

One thing that I love about writing book reviews is the wonderful new connections that I have made as a result of the social media outlets that I have developed Segnalibro with. Twitter, in particular, has been brilliant for this and has led to me reading some wonderful books following tweets from authors. Over the last few weeks, I have developed a lovely Twitter friendship with Jennifer Clayton, and downloaded her two books to read and review. Now, I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that fantasy based novels are not usually my cup of tea, but I loved chatting to Jennifer so much, I couldn’t help but give her books a read. First up was A Spark of Magic, the first book in the Chosen Saga.

The opening is very enigmatic as we are given a very poetic hint at what is to come and what the themes of this novel will be. It reads like a prophecy and gives the reader a delicious sense of trepidation of what is to come. When we are introduced to Crispin in the prologue, the dark, magical traveller who takes great pleasure at ending the lives of his followers when they displease him, the beginning of the novel starts to make sense. Yet any potential thoughts about the plot are blown out of the water when, in Chapter One, Charlie, a clumsy 15-year-old girl is introduced as the main protagonist.  Written in first person narrative, Charlie is a bundle of contradictions and mixed up teenage angst. Clayton captures the stressed out teenager perfectly, as Charlie flits from one thought to the next, her emotions all over the place and laid bare for the reader to know.

A Spark of Magic tells Charlie’s story as she arrives in yet another new town after moving house for the umpteenth time. Charlie knows her Mum and Dad have not been completely honest with her and her anger at this ebbs and flows throughout. She describes her thoughts as they occur, playing out conversations in her head and is quite self-deprecating about herself. Initially, this is a bit irritating but as you rationalise that you are effectively in the head of a 15-year-old hormonal teenage girl, it works really well. I had been warned that it was a slow starter but to stick with it although I think the slow build up to a gripping climax works very well in this plot.

Charlie ultimately finds herself in a quandary as she finds herself attracted to two boys. Tru is the handsome Native American boy who befriends her outside his mother’s shop, after Charlie has been told a haunting story about Isha, the head of a Native American tribe, and his wolf companion, and about how a man only know as the Traveller wiped out Isha’s entire tribe and ripped the heart out of Isha’s wolf. The reason the Traveller lets Isha live is so that Isha can tell the rest of his people about the Traveller’s power and strength, so that they would always fear him. Charlie is spellbound by this story, as she is about the sweet, handsome Tru. He offers to give her a ride to school on her first day, but unbeknownst to Charlie, her mother has arranged for the son of a family friend to pick her up. Jace is also a handsome boy who infuriates and enchants Charlie with his confident flirtation, right from the moment he meets her. Charlie doesn’t want to be attracted to Jace, but finds that she is. Again, Charlie is confused and bewildered and we are privy to her every thought.

However, there is a third person who seems to invade Charlie’s dreams, or are they dreams? Charlie isn’t sure and neither are we as readers at first. However, it becomes clear that Crispin,who we are introduced to in the Prologue, is the traveller from Tru’s mother’s story and that he is, for some strange reason, manifesting himself in Charlie’s dreams. As we get Crispin’s point of view too, we are allowed to know more than our main protagonist, and the juxtaposition of the two viewpoints works really well to build up the tension. As readers, we know the danger, to a point, before Charlie does, but we are also aware that Charlie is having more of an effect on Crispin than he thought he would and it appears that Charlie unwittingly has a hold on him too.

Charlie is also experiencing some weird changes in her behaviour that she does not seem to be able to control. I’m not going to elaborate further on this because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who reads it, but something is definitely amiss as Charlie struggles to get a grip on her thoughts and doubts. It also becomes obvious that Jace knows more than he is letting on and that Tru may not be all he appears either, though whether this is in a malevolent way or not, you’ll have to read to find out, and I’m not sure you’ll know all the answers by the end of this novel either!

Sometimes, it is easy to forget that Charlie is only nearly sixteen. As she experiences the feelings of first love, she doesn’t know what to do and the uncertainties in her life continue to overwhelm her for a lot of the narrative, yet at other times, she appears quite grown up in her approach and the adult themes of some of the chapters add to this sense that she is older than her years at times. The dynamic between Charlie and the other characters is really well written so that the reader knows there is more than meets the eye, but only clues are given about how this will manifest.

Personally, I could understand how Charlie was torn between Tru and Jace and my opinion changed a few times in the novel. However, the enigmatic Crispin was the character who I found most intriguing and I felt that he had a Christian Grey feel about him, a detached curiosity about someone who he should be able to overpower easily but is strangely under her spell, much like Christian with Ana.

If I had one minor complaint about this book it would be that the proof-reading could be better, but I think that has more to do with my personal anally retentive approach to spelling and grammar than anything else. It certainly doesn’t detract from what a brilliant book this is. Clayton’s analysis of a teenage girl’s mind is absolutely spot on and as I have a fifteen year old daughter myself, I am only too aware of how changeable they can be! I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did, mainly because of the fantastical element of it, but I cannot wait to read the sequel, A Blaze of Magic. There are so many open ends left begging for answers that I am really keen to know what happens next, and it has been left with one humdinger of a cliffhanger. Even at the end of this book it is still hard to tell how everything links up at the moment but I hope that by reading A Blaze of Magic, I’ll be enlightened. Most of all, though, I am in awe at the writing skills of my new friend Jennifer Clayton, as she seamlessly flits between the deep, mysterious narrative of Crispin, to the self-doubting, yet tougher than she appears, Charlie.

What Happened to Marilyn by Alexander Rigby

Those that know me well will know that I have had a fascination with the life and mysterious death of Marilyn Monroe for as long as I can remember. I have read countless biographies and two rather large pictures of the Blonde Bombshell adorn my living room walls. So when I saw the title of Alexander Rigby’s latest novel, I wanted to read it. I’ll admit that futuristic novels don’t normally appeal to me but the Marilyn link sold it to me. What would Marilyn Monroe be like in 2062? How would she react to all the technology that has been introduced since 1962 and what would she make of all the controversy surrounding her death? Of course, we could never really know the answer to these questions, but I loved the idea of someone writing a piece of fiction considering them.

Jeremiah Gold, a scientific genius in 2062, builds a time machine in the form of a flying car (a floca) with the intention of taking his mum, Avery, to the future to a time when she would be able to find a cure for her brain tumour. When Avery dies before he finishes the time machine, he interprets her curious final words to mean that he should return to 1962 and rescue Marilyn Monroe from her impending death and bring her to 2062. So he does.

When Jeremiah goes back to 1962, he uses the many biographies he has in his possession to work out where he can “bump into” Marilyn in the days leading up to August 4th 1962 to gain her trust. I was a little disappointed that this section of the book was very dealt with quite quickly and I often felt like I was reading a vague reporting of the facts with a few choice meetings between Marilyn and Jeremiah stuck in between but I think that if I hadn’t read so much about Marilyn Monroe, I may not have noticed this. In the overall scheme of the novel, this section of the book merely facilitates Marilyn’s journey to 2062 so there is no requirement to go into any more detail than Rigby does, but I think it may have been interesting to explore the Kennedy’s role a bit and to give an insight to what actually happened to Marilyn that night, even in a fictional sense. Indulgence on my part, perhaps…

Once Jeremiah transports Marilyn to 2062, she doesn’t seem as shocked as I might have been if I’d found myself 100 years in the future and she seems to adapt pretty easily on the whole, which seems a bit strange. I’ll admit, by this point, I was thinking that perhaps I had expected too much from this novel and was wondering if I was going to enjoy the book as a whole. However, I stuck with it and I’m extremely glad I did!

Over the following chapters, Rigby develops the various relationships between the characters and Marilyn isn’t always the centre of attention, allowing the other characters to blossom; relationships develop and the pasts of the various characters are scrutinised, with a few revelations along the way. Marilyn is effectively left with a decision to make on how she wants to live her life going forward, and who with.

The last third of the novel is where all the things that perhaps I felt weren’t quite right earlier in the book fell into place. Just when you expect that the narrative will take you in one direction, Rigby throws in a few curveballs to make Marilyn’s journey in particular brilliantly concluded. All the little nuances from the rest of the novel are intricately woven together and it all makes absolute sense. Anything that may have seemed minor previously is tied up at the end and is very cleverly pieced together.

What Happened to Marilyn is a beautifully written, clever narrative and whilst I had my reservations at first, by the time I reached the end I thought it was a fitting fictional tribute to the legend that was Marilyn Monroe. Rigby allows her (albeit in a fictional sense) to choose her own destiny. As someone who has read endless books on Marilyn Monroe’s life and death and has developed my own theories of what really happened that night on 4th August 1962, it’s nice that at least in fiction, Marilyn Monroe has regained some control. Rigby doesn’t allow his novel to get bogged down in facts and conspiracy theories; instead it’s just a lovely story about a Hollywood legend who finds herself 100 years in the future and I would highly recommend that you give it a read.